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FinCEN turns to awards ceremonies to try to get noticed

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Nigel Morris-Cotterill

FinCEN's biggest problem is that it is incredibly low profile and hardly anyone knows what it is or, even, in broad terms what it does. That's been its problem since its early days. For years it dined out on the single case that really hit the news: the Black Market Peso Exchange but that was old hat even in the late 1990s. Now it's got a new plan and it's aping, well, everyone else who wants to get their name in the papers. (free content)

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It's almost sad that FinCEN (the name of which the media has constant trouble with) is the enforcement community's equivalent of the back room boys - geeks that everyone needs but no one ever invites to parties.

In one of its new, trendy, semi-literate press releases, the US Department of the Treasury, which is FinCEN's boss, says "FinCEN Directors Law Enforcement Awards Program Recognizes Significance of BSA Reporting by Financial Institutions" The US Treasury has decided to abolish the use of apostrophes and keeps us busy putting them where they belong. It's so frustrating, and such a waste of time, that it's almost tempting to leave their information services and ignore them - except that no matter how badly written, their material is important. Mostly.

The importance of the media release is not the content - that's as dull as reading the self-justification of whatever awards ceremony is grabbing the attention of an increasingly lazy media, but what stands behind it.

FinCEN has a major image problem - it doesn't have an image. Millions of people in business know it's there and they know they have to fill in forms and to submit them to a faceless body; they know that there's a regulator called FinCEN that tells them what they have to do but beyond that, they have no influence over it so it's just another piece of red tape they have to comply with. They even know that if they fail they can be subject to a range of penalties that can include closing their business.

So, the headline tries to make those who file reports of suspicious transactions and cash transactions aware that those reports do not simply disappear into a black hole in the US Treasury and that they do, in fact, contribute to the investigation and conviction of criminal offences. In short, the legal obligations have a positive impact on society. But the headline is complicated. What it means is far more brutal: FinCEN is giving awards to law enforcement agencies which have successfully used information submitted by regulated businesses.

The businesses that have made the reports get nothing, not even public recognition of their contribution to the intelligence that led the investigation. To do so would breach the principles of privacy relating to STRs, in particular.